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Evidence-Based Sentencing as Applied in a Circuit Court Using Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission Recommendations
AuthorSweeney Jr, Edward William
AdvisorMarsh, Shawn C
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The last fifty years have been ones of great turmoil in the field of criminal justice. The focus of much attention has been the sentencing process in serious cases, and many legislative initiatives enacted harsher sentencing policies, which resulted in a sizable increase in the number of persons incarcerated in the U.S. The changes had a disproportionate effect on African-Americans, which magnified the public sentiment that the criminal justice system was broken. During the same period, the concept of evidence-based sentencing was being developed. Some form of it was adopted in federal courts and almost half the states, including Missouri. However, evidence-based sentencing had a sizable number of critics, many of whom contended the practice works to exacerbate the phenomena of mass incarceration and injustice towards African-Americans. Here in the City of Saint Louis, the seat of the Twenty-Second Judicial Circuit of Missouri, that public sentiment has been even more pronounced. In the last ten years, there has been a startling increase in the number of homicides. The reasons for that trend have been difficult to understand; homicides had been steadily declining since a peak in the early 1990’s through 2010, only to then see a reversal of the trend with the number of homicides per capita in the City reaching a record number in 2020. Almost all of those homicides were perpetrated with a handgun. This study does two things: first, it looks at the evolution and criticisms of evidence-based sentencing, especially as developed and used in Missouri. In 1990, the Missouri Legislature established a Sentencing Commission to study sentencing practices in the state, and in 1994 expanded the Commission’s role to include developing a system of recommended sentences. The body, renamed the Sentencing Advisory Commission, published its first set of sentencing guidelines in 1997. In subsequent years, the Commission refined its sentencing recommendations and included in its user guides a considerable amount of information about dispositions of felony cases statewide for use by judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, probation and parole officers, corrections officials and others involved in the implementation of sentences. However, there was resistance to the use of the sentencing recommendations, which in 2012 led the Legislature to eliminate the Commission’s authority to publish sentencing recommendations. By 2017, the Commission became dormant, although remaining an authorized agency in the statutes. In 2020, an effort to revitalize the Commission began, and continues today. The second part of this study examines felony cases in which one of the charges involved a gun – “gun cases” – that were disposed of in one division of the Circuit Court of the Twenty-Second Judicial Circuit of Missouri. The study examined how the sentencing recommendations and other information provided by the Commission related to the sentences defendants received in those cases. With regard to those defendants who were granted probation, the study examined their performance on probation and whether probation was completed successfully or revoked. The study demonstrated that the Commission’s sentence recommendations gave the Court useful tools that helped in arriving at the sentencing decision in any case, as did the data provided about the length of sentences in similar cases statewide, and the data the Commission provided from the Department of Corrections about the length of time offenders were required to serve before eligibility for parole and the length of time that was actually served before release on parole. It is hoped that the study may be useful in the ongoing effort to revitalize the Sentencing Advisory Commission.